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Interview: Virtual reality (VR) in the fashion industry

We recently spoke to Dr Wendy Powell, senior member of the IEEE and a reader in Virtual Reality at the University of Portsmouth, about how VR is used in the fashion industry.

What could the future hold for virtual reality in the fashion industry?

The fashion industry, whether high end or high street, is all about presenting designers and brands in a way that makes the ordinary consumer want to be part of the newest trend, and to do that you need to present them with images and experiences that make them feel positive and excited about the products.

There are three main areas which could really be enhanced by the use of VR.

The first is in the fashion shows themselves. With the ability we have now to film 360 degree video, it is a relatively easy task to film a live show from multiple angles, and to view the footage using virtual reality headsets. Previously, users could only look at whatever was on the screen in front of them - the angle that the director chooses at any point in the show. But in real-life, we want to look around, focus on details that interest us, and 360 video through a VR headset such as Oculus Rift or even Google Cardboard allows us to do exactly that. London Fashion Week is no longer just a place for the elite, but somewhere we can all go, to look around, experience the atmosphere, get a front row view of the clothes, and even go behind the scenes with the models and designers.

At a high street level, we can envisage similar techniques to allow us to view the range of clothes immersed in a virtual shop. Either by 360 photography and filming of live models, or even using state-of-the art modelling and animation techniques, we can see how the clothes really look, walk behind the model and see how the line of that skirt falls, change elements of the outfit and accessories until we find the combination that we like best. No longer are we constrained to look at flat images of a model, wondering if the trousers he's wearing have been pinned and tucked out of the sight of the camera. We can walk around him and see for ourselves.

Thirdly, there is always the question of "how will it look on me?" In our increasingly busy lives, we have less time to browse around and try on multiple outfits - but online clothes shopping is fraught with problems - the dress that looked great on the model, just doesn't look the same on me. We have the technology to design custom avatars which are built to our exact dimensions. It won't be long before this type of scanning can be done at low cost and we can each have our own "digital model". Imagine being able to just click on the clothes you want to try, and see them on an exact representation of yourself. Pop on your VR headset, and you can get an honest answer to "does my bum look big in this?"

Is there a market for 'fashionable' virtual reality headsets?

Much as the hype around the new wave of VR would have us believe that we'll all be living half our lives in virtual worlds in the near future, the reality is a little different. Uncomfortable headsets, trailing wires, or just messing up our hair - head mounted displays are hardly a desirable accessory, and, let's face it, most of them are more geek than gorgeous. But what if the VR headset itself was a fashion statement, and the designers had more in common with milliners than engineers? This might seem a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but who would have imagined a few years ago that a phone could be a status symbol, a fashion statement, a must-have accessory? When someone markets a VR headset, and people are saying "I want one of those" before they've tried it out, then we are ready for VR as fashion. For technology to please serous techies, it needs to do what it claims to do, and it really doesn't matter much what it looks like. But if you want to please the consumer, looks are everything.

Is there a space for 'virtual' fashion in the marketplace?

Increasingly we are "marketing" digital versions of ourselves, whether it is on our Facebook profile or an avatar in second life. As these digital representations of ourselves become more sophisticated, it is ever easier to distort and manipulate them away from our real selves. And to a certain extent, this ability to remove ourselves from real life, to safely explore an alternative identity is an attractive one. For many, this includes personal style and clothing. The idea that we could acquire "virtual haute couture" for our digital selves is an intriguing possibility. We already know that people will pay real money for virtual items in computer games and simulations, and it is likely only a matter of time before shopping for our virtual clothes will be as normal as shopping for our real ones. Digital animation techniques have advanced greatly in recent years, and although real-time movement of cloth and hair is still a challenge, we are getting closer and closer to representing these with near-real fidelity. Bring on the virtual wardrobe!

Will virtual reality fashion shows prove 'fashionable'?

At the moment the culture of haute couture, fashion shows and designer gowns is generally seen as the playground of the elite, the rich, the fashionable and the famous. The general public seems to have an insatiable hunger for glimpses of celebrity life, and are likely to revel in the idea of "attending" an exclusive fashion show, sitting among the rich and famous and sharing the experience. Whether the rich and famous will be as enthusiastic about the idea of a virtual camera streaming their every yawn and frown to a virtual audience is quite another matter.

In reality, I suspect that sitting in a room on your own wearing a VR headset, looking around at people who you can see, but not smell, or touch, or talk to, will quickly pall, and virtual fashion shows may be a short-lived novelty. On the other hand, the ability to fast forward past the boring bits, to jump back stage with the models, or to get right up on the catwalk may more than compensate for the fact that you're not actually there.

Could catwalk shows become less exclusive?

So much of the hype around the shows is their very exclusivity, so there is a very real danger that, by enabling anyone to virtually attend, the shows lose their status. On the other hand, perhaps the digital divide itself will give the exclusivity a new edge - the "really there" vs the "nearly there."

Could the fashion industry make more money by charging ‘everyday’ people to view shows?

Pay per view of digital content is an accepted part of modern life. However, there is a strong trend towards free content supported by commercial sponsorship. Whilst it may be possible to construct a product which is appealing enough for consumers to pay to access, I suspect that there will be consumer pressure to provide free access to shows, with revenue being generated through product placement, adverts etc

What kind of tech could partner up with it to make it better?

The "Holy Grail" of virtual reality is a sense of presence or "being there". We experience the real world with all our senses, but virtual reality provides information primarily to our sense of sight. Even when we have audio added, it is often recorded as standard stereo sound. "Binaural sound" is recorded using special dummy-heads which mediate the sound arriving at the recording microphones in the same way that a human head modulates incoming sound. This provides a much richer and more immersive sound-scape, giving a truly 3-dimensional sound experience. Adding binaural sound recordings to virtual fashion shows will add greatly to the sense of presence. However, even with state of the art visual and audio input, we are still only catering to two of our senses, whereas in the real world our senses of smell and touch would also be constantly stimulated. There are virtual reality systems in development which offer some stimulus to these additional senses, but they are still a long way from accurate simulation of real sensory experiences. Until virtual reality can fool all of our senses, we will have to content ourselves with it being a good, but unreal, subsitute for actually being there.

What about mixing realities together?

It's already not only possible, but pretty commonplace, to stream a video presence into each other homes and offices, and relatively simple to add a camera feed to a video screen. Perhaps we could have "seats" for virtual audiences, where the physical audience could see, hear and interact with those attending virtually. They could even be mobile, robot-based, and able to move freely around the show with the other attendees.

Maybe it won't be too far in the future that I can put on my high-fashion headset and beam myself into the catwalks of Paris, dressed in my best virtual fashion.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Wayne0216